music for the eyes

Here’s a fun one: My local community/university orchestra will be premiering a new piece this weekend. Stanford University composer Mark Applebaum has composed a work for orchestra with a special, unusual soloist: a florist.

The Concerto for Florist and Orchestra riffs on the traditional notion of a concerto, where one or more virtuoso solists duke it out musically with an accompanying ensemble. In the new work, the orchestra will play and the florist will…presumably array flowers and leaves virtuostically all over the stage. Some musical concerto soloists have reputations for being high-strung individuals, and to my mind the new piece also riffs on the idea of florists sometimes having a reputation for being just as high-strung.

The work’s soloist will be James DelPrince, Associate Professor of Plant and Soil Sciences with a specialization in Floral Design and Interior Plantscaping Design at Mississippi State University. On his campus biography page DelPrince writes, “The aesthetics of horticulture involve recognition of the intrinsic beauty of plants and flowers along with the practiced skill of floral design and interior plant placement. I enjoy and value the opportunity to bring understanding and appreciation of floral and plant design to people.” And this weekend’s performance–the second time DelPrince has worked floral magic with Mark Applebaum’s music to accompany him–seems like a great way to bring some of that appreciation to a different sort of audience than people looking for something to decorate their wedding.

If you want more traditional fare, the all-concerto concert opens with Prokofiev’s Second Violin Concerto, with Hannah Cho, winner of the orchestra’s 2009 Youth Artist Competition. Closing the evening will be another “conceptual concerto,” Béla Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, a concerto with no soloists at all other than members of the orchestra, all of whom will have to work pretty hard to play the score.

One of my music profs from many years ago, Robert Erickson, was famous for shutting his eyes when listening to performances. He wasn’t bored; he just didn’t want the visuals to get in the way of truly hearing the music. You won’t want to shut your eyese for Saturday’s and Sunday’s performances.

The La Jolla Symphony performs. Steven Schick conducts.

the humble coffeeberry

Fill in the blank:
California coffeeberries are __________

  1. versatile in the landscape
  2. important members of the ecosystem
  3. boring as dirt

Coffeeberries, Frangula californica (aka Rhamnus californica) are common plants in California native plant gardens. The plants stay green and leafy all year and provide a welcome evergreen background for other species that go through more extravagant bloom-and-bust cycles. They’re tough plants, and you can find clones that tolerate higher water parts of the garden as well as areas that subsist on natural rainfall.

The species produces berries that progress from red to purple to black over the course of the summer. Any plant that produces berries is likely to be an important food source for wildlife. Earlier in the season, in flower, it keeps pollinators happy.

An unknown cultivar of coffeeberry--in bloom! Look at those amazing flowers! (Don't go wetting yourself in excitement, now...)

But until recently, I’d viewed them as fairly uninteresting plants, and I’d have answered “3″ to the fill-in-the-blank above. I had none in the garden.

That changed a couple years ago with the introduction to the garden of several plants of two different clones. In the wilds the typical form can get pretty large–fifteen feet tall in the shade, and more, and even wider. But garden selections let you have smaller coffeeberries that won’t need constant pruning to keep them at a reasonable size.

A closeup of the leaves on 'Eve Case'

I picked a couple plants of the classic ‘Eve Case’ cultivar, which has reported garden sizes of four to ten feet, depending on water and sun exposure. It’s a fairly informal plant, with fairly coarse leaves spaced fairly far apart on its stems. “Woodsy” would be an apt description for it.

By contrast, the leaves of 'Tranquil Margarita'

I also tried the cultivar ‘Tranquil Margarita,” which is offered by Las Pilitas Nursery. The nursery’s website gushes about this one: “It is the most beautiful coffeeberry I’ve ever seen. (At first I didn’t realize it was a coffeeberry!) Leaves are clean, shiny and rich looking. The whole plant looks like it belongs next to an English Tudor in London.”

A still-young plant of 'Tranquil Margarita,' looking a little more mannered than 'Eve Case'

Hyperbole? I think not. In describing plants for a California garden, saying a plant could look great in a Tudor garden could almost be seen as an insult. But I really really like this plant. So far it’s been a good, clean grower, nice and upright. For me it’s been faster than ‘Eve Case,’ but a gopher attack on the roots my Eve’s doesn’t render this a scientifically meticulous comparison.

There are at a few other cultivars that are out in the marketplace. Most common is ‘Mound San Bruno’–or ‘Mount San Bruno’–which grows fairly low and wide, with a pretty dense habit and typical fairly coarse leaves. ‘Seaview,’ a parent of ‘Eve Case,’ is an older variety that is reported to be a good, taller groundcover. (I haven’t observed any of this cultivar. There’s also a version of it called ‘Seaview Improved.’) ‘Leatherleaf’ has thicker, darker leaves than the typical form. ‘Little Sur’ gets mentioned occasionally, but I don’t see it listed on lists I’ve consulted. It’s probably one of the smallest versions.

There are probably other varieties and cultivars out there. If you have space you can always grow the unadulterated, unselected form of the species and earn bonus points for supporting genetic diversity.

So there you have it, the humble coffeeberry. I don’t think anyone would call it the sexiest thing with leaves, but as I get older I’m more and more attracted to plants that are sturdy and subtle over flashy and disposable horticultural one night stands. Treat the plant with respect and it’ll be there for you for many mornings to come.

long, winding path

Sunday we went up to LA for a family birthday. While we were up there we stopped by Los Angeles Modern Auctions, which was having a preview for an upcoming sale that includes some really cool items by Ettore Sottsass, one of my favorite 20th Century designers. Paintings, sculpture, furniture, general stuff: you can see it for years in books and magazines but the experience of coming face to face with it can be pretty different.

Once of the not-by-Sottsass lots in the sale is this immense garden path designed by California ceramic artist Stan Bitters, a student of Peter Voulkos. Like Voulkos his work is inspired by the material of clay itself–And how can you get more earthy, more primal than clay? Ceramics, gardening, it all can come from the same place.

The path can be assembled in several configurations, and in this configuration coils more than forty feet long. The piece comes from the later 1960s, at a time when Bitters was working with a ceramics manufacturer that basically gave him 20 tons of clay to see what he could make out of it.

When someone gives you 20 tons of clay you make big things, and this is just one of many examples of the really really big artworks he started to create. Most of his works of that era grew out of collaborations with architects–Big work works really well outdoors.

His work is all over public spaces up in the Fresno area. In recent years he’s been doing public and private commissions in the Los Angeles and Palm Springs areas.

The garden path looked a tad cramped and out of place on display in a warehouse full of polished modern and postmodern furniture and art, but just imagine this snaking its way through a landscape. Very cool.

This was a path he made for his own home and garden, and it has a gentle casualness, a welcome lack of striving, that you can see in the private pieces artists make for themselves and friends. You can make out the casual, earthy surface details and glaze in this detail.

So if your garden needs a casual but still pretty stunning focal point here’s your chance. You’ll probably need to rent a very large truck to bring it home.

cellphone camera test

After having lived without a cellphone for the last two centuries I finally took the leap. Not only did I get a cellphone, I got a smart phone. The iPhones have been all the rage for a while, but I ended up selecting an HTC MyTouch serviced by T-Mobile.

As someone who’s a bit of a Luddite and who’s loudly protested cellphones and cellphone culture, I’m almost ashamed to admit owning the device. Still, something about the combination of a device that is part-phone, part-camera, part-wireless router, part-web browser, part-music player, part-camcorder, part-GPS unit, part-nanny, part-godknowswhatelse seemed compelling.

The view looking north, up past Scripps Pier

Last week a good friend came to visit for a few days. A tourist trip up to the top of Mount Soledad, the high point of coastal San Diego, seemed like a good idea. Thursday was a break between winter storms, which meant that the visibility could be pretty stunning.

Yes indeed. The views were terrific. Also, a lot of native plants surrounding the little pad of green grass and parking at the top of the mountain were breaking out into bloom.

Did someone say “photo-op?”

Scarlet monkey flower, Mimulus aurantiacus, but judging from the focus the camera was more rapt with the view of La Jolla below.

Deerweed, Lotus scoparius, also frustratingly out of focus, no matter how hard I tried to get the camera to focus on the flower instead of the background foliage.

Since I didn’t have my real camera this seemed like a good test for the camera feature on the new handheld device. (Really, can you call it a phone anymore?)

Here’s a short stack of snapshots I took up there. And yes, I consider them snapshots, only snapshots.

I’m used to cameras with lots of controls. For controls, this model has a moderate zoom option and the ability to turn the flash on or off or on automatic. That’s it for options. So, it does make for a simple-to-use camera, but it’s simple to the point of being simplistic.

Coast sunflower, Encelia californica, showing both focus and exposure issues.

The flowers of lemonadeberry, Rhus integrifolia. Unlike my other attempts at closeups, this shot came out clear and crisp--but still blown out in the highlights.

Achieving good focus or getting an exposure that doesn’t overexpose something in the frame can be a challenge. These are limitations for lots of point and shoot cameras, so I don’t know that it’s any worse than some of them. Lens flare when you shoot into the sun can be a problem, but that happens with even the best of cameras.

The phone designers probably realized that the camera would be liable to shake as you took a snapshot. To compensate they applied a fairly extreme level of in-camera sharpening. For some images it’s barely noticeable, in others it’s so obvious it hurts.

So as not to seem like I’m a total Mr. Negative, there were a few things I did like. The wide 9:16 aspect ratio of the image–similar to the current generation of televisions–is kinduv cool and cinematic. The 2:3 aspect ratio of old-school 35mm cameras is harder to work with and often feels unnatural.

A view with encelia and lemonadeberry in the foreground, as well as the ever-present coyotoebrush, baccharis.

That view again, this time with some chamise, Adenostoma fasciculatum, in the foreground. I still have trouble deciding whether I'm in coastal sage scrub habitat or maritime chaparral. The presence of chamise tells you that you're in chaparral.

A view to the south. You could easily see a couple dozen miles into Mexico that day.

Colors looked pretty true to life.

And in the end there’s the much better chance that you’ll have the cellphone camera handy when you’ve left the dedicated camera at home. You may never miss another photo op again.

So…has life changed with a cellphone? I can’t say that it has that much. It was handy to have when I was trying to navigate Philadelphia a couple weeks ago. It’s handy to keep in touch with people when you’re away from the landline. And I guess I feel just a little bit more hip. Like, now, when people talk about angry birds, I realize chances are that they’re most likely talking about the app and not what happens when you disturb a nest.